NIST issues major revision of Core Computer Security Guide: SP 800-53

The selection and implementation of security controls for information systems and organizations are important tasks that can have major implications on the operations and assets of organizations as well as the welfare of individuals and the United States.

Security controls are the safeguards and countermeasures prescribed for information systems or organizations that are designed to: protect the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of information that is processed, stored, and transmitted by those systems/organizations; and satisfy a set of defined security requirements.

There are several key questions that should be answered by organizations when addressing the information security considerations for information systems:

• What security controls are needed to satisfy the security requirements and to adequately mitigate risk incurred by using information and information systems in the execution of organizational missions and business functions?

• Have the security controls been implemented, or is there an implementation plan in place?

• What is the desired or required level of assurance that the selected security controls, as implemented, are effective in their application?
The answers to these questions are not given in isolation but rather in the context of an effective risk management process for the organization that identifies, mitigates as deemed necessary, and monitors on an ongoing basis, risks arising from its information and information systems.

The new NIST Special Publication 800-39 provides guidance on managing information security risk at three distinct tiers—the organization level, mission/business process level, and information system level. The security controls defined in this publication and recommended for use by organizations to satisfy their information security requirements should be employed as part of a well-defined risk management process that supports organizational information security programs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have just published the fourth revision of the government's foundational computer security guide, Security and Privacy Controls for Federal information Systems and Organizations. Better known to the federal computer security and contractor community as "SP (Special Publication) 800-53," this fourth revision is the most comprehensive update to the security controls catalog since the document's inception in 2005.

"This update was motivated by the expanding threats we all face," explains Project Leader and NIST Fellow Ron Ross, "These include the increasing sophistication of cyber attacks and the fact that we are being challenged more frequently and more persistently."

State-of-the-practice security controls and control enhancements have been integrated into the new revision to address the evolving technology and threat space. Examples include issues particular to mobile and cloud computing; insider threats; applications security; supply chain risks; advanced persistent threat; and trustworthiness, assurance, and resilience of information systems. The revision also features eight new families of privacy controls that are based on the internationally accepted Fair Information Practice Principles.

SP 800-53, Revision 4 also takes a more holistic approach to information security and risk management. The publication calls for maintaining "cybersecurity hygiene"—the routine best practices that help reduce information security risks—but also appeals for hardening those systems by applying state-of-the-practice architecture and engineering principles to minimize the impacts of cyber attacks and other threats.

"This ‘Build It Right’ strategy, coupled with security controls for continuous monitoring, provides organizations with near real-time information that leaders can use to make ongoing risk-based decisions to protect their critical missions and business functions," says Ross.

To provide organizations with greater flexibility and agility in building information security programs, the baseline set of security controls can be tailored for specific needs according to the organization's missions, environments of operation, and technologies used. Specific lists of controls and implementation guidance, or overlays, focus on a variety of missions, including space operations, military tactical operations and health care applications. Overlays also support specific technologies such as cloud computing and mobile devices.

"This specialization approach to security control selection is important as the number of threat-driven controls and control enhancements increases and organizations develop specific risk management strategies," Ross concludes.

The new revision of SP 800-53, Security and Privacy Controls for Federal information Systems and Organizations, was developed by NIST, the Department of Defense, the Intelligence Community and the Committee on National Security Systems as part of the Joint Task Force, which was formed in 2009. It can be obtained at